Monday, July 28, 2014

A Great Chapter

The writers of the Bible did not add verse numbers nor divide their works into chapters. This was done later by others and initially for the purpose of creating a lectionary, or cycle of readings for worship. It began with the Jews during their captivity in Babylon. The temple in Jerusalem, the center of their religion, had been destroyed and as exiles in a foreign land, they couldn't even visit its ruins. So they preserved their faith by focusing on the Torah, God's Law, as presented in the 5 Books of Moses, or, as we refer to them, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Rabbis divided the Penteteuch in 154 sections to be read over the Sabbaths of 3 years. For similar reasons, by the time of the Council of Nicea, Christians had divided the New Testament into paragraphs.

But the present chapters of the Bible are attributed to the remarkable Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury. He was elected during a dispute between King John and Pope Innocent the Third. John declared that anyone who recognized Langston was a public enemy. The Pope put England under an interdict: in effect, an excommunication of the entire country. After 5 years, John relented. Stephen absolved the king--who almost immediately violated his oath to observe the charter of liberties sworn by his ancestor Henry the First. Eventually, under Langton's leadership, a number of barons finally forced the monarch to sign the Magna Carta, much of which comes verbatim from Henry's charter. As for his work within the church, the Constitution of Stephen Langton are still considered binding church law. Somehow during this exciting life, Stephen managed to write commentaries on almost all the books of the Old Testament, to compose Veni Sancte Spiritus, which is used in the Roman Catholic mass of Pentecost and sung even at the ordination of Anglican priests. He also divided the Bible into the chapters we still use today.

One can quibble about the chapter divisions. It's said that Langton worked out the chapters in his Bible as he rode from church to church throughout the kingdom and the joke is that whenever the horse stumbled, he made a mark that became a new chapter. And, yes, in some places Langton seems to have separated a verse or two that rightly belong to the chapter before or after it. But he perfectly framed the climax of Paul's letter to the Romans in marking out chapter 8. Perhaps because it, like the Magna Carta, is a ringing declaration of freedom, in this case, from evil and fear.

In the first half of Romans Paul argues that God's law cannot save us. Its chief function seems to be pointing out the ways we fall short of God's glory. In chapter 7, Paul gives us an agonizing glimpse of the internal conflict of a person trying to live by God's law but hampered by his sinful nature, which acts as a law unto itself. He exclaims, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through our Lord Jesus Christ!”

Chapter 8 begins on a similar high note: “There is, therefore, now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death.” Here is the good news: Jesus has set us free from all those things which seek to enslave us so we can live a life ruled by the Spirit.

The nature of that kind of life is not one of retreating from the world because of the temptations or because of the the dangers of following Jesus. Paul writes, “For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.” In other words we are not slaves but children of God. And we have nothing to fear from the world.

In fact, our current sufferings, properly seen, are but the birth pangs of the new creation God is making. While waiting for the revealing of God's children, the present world groans, as do we. That summary of the first 25 verses of chapter 8 brings us up to today's passage. When we try to pray as we ought, sometimes words fail us. We don't know what to ask for. We don't know the future. We don't always know what is good and what is bad for us. At such times the Spirit of God within us intercedes for us with groans or sighs too deep for words. The Spirit pleads our case on a level beyond words.

If you look in the Book of Common Prayer or Evangelical Lutheran Worship, you will find a whole array of prayers for a wide variety of situations. There are prayers for every stage of life, for many different professions and for a lot of conditions in which we find ourselves. It's great to have a well-thought out and well-phrased prayer at your fingertips. But just because you can't find a prayer that says exactly what you want or can't think of what to say on your own, that doesn't mean that God is unaware of what is going on in your life. Like a loving and attentive father he knows what we desire and more importantly what what we really need. And he does so before we know ourselves.

A human parent who does this is just making predictions based on what a child has done or said in the past. But, as Paul says, he who searches the heart knows the mind of the Spirit. Here we have 2 assurances. First that God searches our hearts. He knows us better than our human parents do. He knows how and what we think intimately. That can be scary when we when we are thinking of doing wrong. But it can be comforting when we are trying to do right. God knows what is going on in our minds. He knows us for who we are.

He also knows the mind of the Spirit. Since the groaning of the world is associated with the birth pains of the new creation, the groaning of the Spirit within us is, I think, the birth pangs of the new humanity, the new you and me. The new creation must be populated with new people. And that too is the work of the Spirit, taking us as we are, the embryonic forms of what God intends us to be and bringing us to completion, or maturity. So God not only knows us for who we are but also for who we will be.

Therefore God makes all things work together for good for those who love him. Sometimes it's hard to see that. It calls for faith. India-born evangelist Ravi Zachiarias tells the story of a young man who translated for him in Vietnam in 1971. 17 years later Hien Pham called Zachiarias and told him what had happened to him after the fall of Vietnam to the Communists. Accused of helping the Americans, Pham was imprisoned and bombarded with Communist propaganda. He began to doubt his faith.

The nadir of his imprisonment was when Pham was assigned to clean the latrine. His first day he discovered among the used toilet paper a page printed in English. He washed it, hid it on his person and late that night, he pulled it out to read it. It was Romans 8. He read how in all things God works for the good of his people. Pham had been on the verge of renouncing his faith. But this triumphant chapter reignited it. Pham volunteered to clean the latrine every day. And every day he collected another page of the Bible. Some officer intended to desecrate the scriptures but God used it to give hope to to one of his children in dire straits.

And there was more to come. Hien Pham was eventually released. He resolved to escape from Vietnam. He and 53 other people began to secretly construct a boat in which to leave the country. One day 4 Vietcong showed up at his door and, based on rumors, asked if he was planning an escape. Pham denied it and they left. But he felt ashamed for being afraid of them and lying. He promised God that the next time he would tell the truth. But he hoped God wouldn't test that resolve.

Sure enough, the 4 Vietcong returned and asked again. This time Pham admitted that he was going to escape from Vietnam. The Vietcong asked if the could go, too! He agreed. Once they were at sea in the boat, they hit a big storm. It appeared that they would die. But they were saved by the seamanship of the 4 Vietcong. They made it to Thailand and today Hien Pham lives in the U.S. He saw first hand how God made everything come together for the good of his children.

The Apostle Paul was in a shipwreck. He was stoned by an angry mob and left for dead. He was flogged, beaten, and imprisoned. There must have been times when he wondered if God was telling him he was on the wrong path. But he too learned firsthand that while we don't always see God's hand in the events of our lives, he's there, making something wonderful out of whatever is at hand, redeeming even hardship and disaster.

It stands to reason that if God can work through catastrophes and tragedies that they cannot come between us and God. And so Paul, for whom these things were not abstractions but personal experiences, piles them up and finds them less formidable than the love of God in Christ. And certainly this is the experience of believers who have been through the crucible of adversity. Were it not, Christianity would have been crushed during the persecutions of the first 3 centuries. St. Francis would have folded under the illnesses he suffered. St. John of the Cross would have dissolved into despair. Africa would not be the vibrant center of the church right now. Christianity would not be spreading in China despite the government's attempts to control it. Elizabeth Elliott would have taken her infant daughter and fled the amazonian tribe who killed her missionary husband rather than go and live out the gospel among them.

Right now a sure way to write a bestseller is to attack God, especially using the hoary argument that the very existence of evil disproves the existence of God. That's like saying the existence of shadows disproves the existence of light. The interesting thing is that these authors tend to be affluent Westerners. I do not doubt that they feel bad for the suffering of others but they don't seem to listen to those with whom they supposedly empathize. Because the testimony of those who suffer is that faith not only helps them through their ordeals but faith gives meaning to their pain. In effect, the cultured despisers of faith are like those so convinced by aerodynamic theory that bees cannot possibly fly that they refuse to go to the apiary and see that nevertheless they do.

The argument that evil disproves a good God might work if it were not for the fact that at the heart of Christianity is the cross, about as solid an acknowledgment of the reality of evil as one could have. The cross says, “Yes, evil exists and so does God. But evil cannot negate God. And if they cannot coexist forever, it is evil, not God, that is destined for extinction.” Because through the cross God took the worst evil imaginable—the judicially approved murder of his son—and turned it into the greatest boon for humanity. Paul turns again and again to the cross, which was a major obstacle for Jews and Gentiles alike, as proof, not of the triumph of evil but of the triumph of God's love. The apostles died in a variety of grisly ways without fear because they knew that Jesus had beaten death and disaster.

This is not to say that adversity cannot test our faith. But we needn't fail the test. Actively trusting that God is good will not only help you through periods of suffering but will give you a deeper understanding of suffering, of yourself and of the power of God. And often, like our inchoate prayers, this wisdom can elude words. But I have seen the lame and the blind praise God and it humbles me.

In fact, I do not think that I can put it better than Paul. In his soaring conclusion to his most wonderful of chapters, he writes: “What then can we say about such things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare his own son, but gave him up for us all, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who vindicates. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who can separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, 'For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.' No, in all these things we are more conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, not things to come, nor powers, nor zenith, nor nadir, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”


Monday, July 21, 2014

Weeds Among the Wheat

If this font size causes you problems, please write to Google. I sized it as Normal, the same as I've done since I began this blog in 2010. But ever so often Google forgets what normal means. The scripture referred to is Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43.

I'm a big fan of Joss Whedon, the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dollhouse and Firefly, and one of the writers behind the original Toy Story film. I was really happy when I found out he was going to write and direct the first Avengers films. And it was everything a Joss Whedon film should be: smart, witty, emotional and with clever plot twists. Unfortunately it was a summer blockbuster, which meant it ultimately boiled down to a fight between good guys and bad guys and it ended neatly with every single bad guy dead or defeated. In a way it wasn't much different from the recent Superman film which ended with the Man of Steel stopping the bad guy by snapping his neck. Kill the main bad guy or blow up the mothership and all the fight goes out of the other bad guys. Just like in real life. After Saddam Hussein died, all strife was gone from Iraq. Right? Or when Khadafi was killed, Libya became a peaceable kingdom. Or when Bin Ladin was taken out, Al Qaeda faded away like snow on the first hot day of Spring. No? Maybe that's why we like comic book films: because if you get rid of the bad guys, you get rid of all evil. In real life, it isn't that easy.

I noticed a long time ago that as more and more movies racked up higher and higher body counts an interesting thing happened. The bad guys ceased to be human or even look human. They were all aliens. Or robots. Or zombies. So the heroes could kill hundreds or thousands of them without the words “genocide” or “war crimes” popping up. At least in Doctor Who the titular character, who is himself an alien, wrestles with all the deaths he's caused. He even gives his enemies a chance to repent or at least stop and walk away rather than go up against him. And we see that often in his fight against evil there is collateral damage. Innocents die. As in real life. But then I see this theme in a lot of British TV shows and movies and fiction. I think it has to do with the fact that 2 World Wars were fought right on their doorstep so to speak and not across the ocean or on the other side of the globe. The Nazis bombed their cities. They lost so many people that that the lessons of what war costs was burned into their national psyche. We tend to think all wars are fought “over there.”

Yet the worst war we ever fought, the one with the most casualties, was our own Civil War. No one went untouched. As the cliché says, it was often brother against brother. States, like my native Missouri, were split by the conflict. Churches were split. That's why so many churches have southern and northern branches. Even the Episcopal church was split, if only for the duration of the war. And yet we don't absorb the lesson of that war the way the British did the lessons of the world wars. And the lesson for us should be this: the enemy is not always over there, nor are they always the absolute other. The enemy could be a fellow citizen or even a member of our family. Which means the enemy is not always that easy to recognize or root out. Nor is he irredeemable.

That brings us to Jesus' parable of the wheat and the weeds. Jesus was keenly aware of the presence of evil in the world. He was also aware that it was not an abstraction nor something totally alien to humanity. God created a good world. People have used his good gifts for evil purposes. And not always unintentionally. We have used our big brains to come up with lots of ways to harm one another. Every time we come up with a new technology, we weaponize it. First came fireworks, and then explosives and munitions. We invented cars and trucks and then tanks. The first plane flew in 1903. Less than 10 years later, they were used for battle in World War 1. Einstein comes up with a formula that equates matter and energy and other scientists see the possibility of the atomic bomb.

Microbiological research leads to both vaccines and biological warfare. Psychology leads to information about how people's brains go wrong and treatments for that as well as how to brainwash and psychologically torture others. Religion offers spiritual insights and moral codes as well as pretexts for the unscrupulous to manipulate the faithful. And often the people behind these things are otherwise productive, law-abiding citizens, not monsters. Sometimes they are just following orders. What's disturbing is that experiments show that compliant, so-called “nice” people are the ones most likely to follow orders from authorities, even though they include harming others. It's what Hannah Arendt called the banality of evil, the fact that that some ethically abhorrent behavior is not motivated by malice so much as an uncritical acceptance of what officials say and do and what they demand others do.

There are those people who unhesitantly pursue their agendas, even if it is necessary to harm people and destroy things that are good. They will do whatever they need to achieve their goal, not caring who gets hurt. These people are sociopaths, lacking empathy for others and totally dedicated to fulfilling their own desires. They make up about 4% of the population, so if you know 100 people odds are as many as 4 of them are sociopaths. Most of them are not criminals or serial killers but as skillful manipulators, they can do quite well in this cutthroat world. Experts say a number of CEOs fulfill the diagnostic criteria. Because it is important to their success, they are generally good at appearing to be normal.

So the bad guys in real life aren't as obvious as they are in movies or as they seem to be to certain politicians and preachers. Which means rooting them out of society isn't as easy as most people seem to think. That's one of the main problems Jesus was pointing out in today's parable.

Before we get into the parable, let us remember that it is a metaphor, meant to provide a limited number of insights. If we try to encompass all aspects of the situation with this one metaphor, it will break down. For instance, Jesus frequently reuses elements in his parables while assigning them different roles. Just last week Jesus used seeds sown to represent the gospel. Here the seeds are good and bad people. Jesus elsewhere compares the kingdom of God to a mustard seed to illustrate the difference between its original size and its mature growth. Each is highlighting a different truth or aspect of the truth.

So neither does Jesus intend this to be a master parable for the condition of the world. What this parable is, though, is an allegory in which everything stands for something else. Jesus tells us so. In fact, his explanation is so explicit that I will not go over all of it. Instead I want to focus on what the parable does and does not say.

The part that intrigues me the most is the reason given for not uprooting the weeds from among the wheat. The landowner, that is, Jesus, is concerned that in pulling out the weeds some wheat will be lost. Jesus is acknowledging that sometimes evil is so interwoven with good that eliminating one means destroying the other. Look at what we've seen in the Middle East. A lot of undeniably evil dictators have fallen. And yet in the power vacuum we have seen a chaos that has led to more death, more fear and more oppression. It turns out that the one good thing the dictators provided was stability. No one thinks that the reigns of Saddam Hussein or Khadafi or Mubarek were wonderful times. But removing them has shown that sometimes this is not always the best course to choose. As Jesus points out, pulling out evil people can uproot associated goodness. How is that possible?

Unlike in movies evil is not a thing unto itself. It has no existence apart from good. Evil is abusing, misusing or neglecting the good gifts God has given us to create a parody of goodness, an inferior knockoff. It is taking things that are good and perverting or distorting them or using them for purposes for which they were never intended. Like using a baseball bat, which was made so people would have fun playing a game, and turning it into a weapon. Or take that stability that makes civilization possible. It is built on predictability and relationships. In a good civilization what is predictable is justice and the fact that those who govern have the common good foremost in their policies. In a bad civilization what is predictable is retribution for opposing the government and the fact that those who govern have their own benefit foremost in their policies. It's better than anarchy and chaos but only because of the basic building blocks of good ideas carried over from the ideal.

Because evil's relationship to good is parasitic, there isn't a purge of evil people in history that didn't destroy innocent people as well. And I'm not just talking about the Inquisition and the witch trials. What about the more recent “witch hunt?” We now know that Senator Joe McCarthy was right: there were communists spies in the US government in the 1940s and 50s. But a lot of people who weren't communists lost their livelihoods and even their lives due to the ham-fisted and self-serving way this commie hunter sought to root out traitors. Likewise, today's historians know that Julius Rosenberg was a spy who gave military and nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union. And authorities at the time knew his wife Ethel probably wasn't a spy. Convicting her of a capital crime was part of their strategy to make Julius confess. But Julius never did and so Ethel went to the electric chair as well.

So what Jesus is saying here is “The way to fix the problem of evil is not to try to root out all the bad guys. You are going to destroy a lot of good guys and children of the kingdom of God that way.” Jesus is saying that the collateral damage is unacceptable to God.

A lot of commentators feel that Jesus may have been thinking of darnels, a type of weed that really does resemble wheat so that distinguishing the two is difficult. Just so, mankind has an abysmal track record when it comes to discerning who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. The Athenians thought Socrates was corrupting their youth and made him drink hemlock. They almost immediately regretted it. But that didn't help Socrates. Reformers frequently stir things up and people see them as working against society rather than for its improvement. Critics say things that people may find offensive or even traitorous. Visionaries are often attacked because saying there is a better way implies that that there is something wrong with the way we are currently doing things. I remember people reacting to the news of Martin Luther King's assassination with approval! I doubt many of them would acknowledge that today. Which is an additional reason not to simply eliminate every person who troubles society, even in the name of keeping order and maintaining the peace. After all, that was the official motivation of those who crucified Christ!

So if we don't eliminate the bad guys does that mean that they will simply get away with it? Not at all. Jesus says that at the end of the age, all causes of evil and all evildoers will be separated out of the kingdom. But the selection will not be done by human beings. The Son of Man will send his angels. Nowhere in the Bible's few apocalyptic books and passages does God use humans as the agents of his judgment. Any who think they have been chosen for that are in fact self-appointed. Jesus explicitly tells us not to judge lest we wish to be judged. Only God is just and merciful enough to judge human beings. He has given that task to his son, Jesus, who knows firsthand what is is to be human and what it is to suffer at the hands of humans. For those who put their trust in Jesus, disowning themselves, taking up their crosses and following him, that is our great assurance. But for those who violated the great commands to love, who dreamt up, carried out and abetted the Holocaust, apartheid, the Spanish Inquisition, the gulags, the witch hunts, the pogroms, the slave trade, the Crusades, caste systems, ethnic cleansing, pedophilia, violent Jihad, drug pushing, usury, the global sex trade, murder, theft, vicious lies--for all those who harm, pervert, or diminish the things of God, his gifts, or the people made in his image--that is their great fear. If they did it to the least of Jesus' brothers or sisters, they did it to him. If they neglected to do it for them, they neglected to do it for him. If they never changed their minds, never changed direction, if they violated the Spirit of Christ while acting in the name of Christ, if they acted without remorse or mercy, they have no right to expect mercy from the one whom they pierced.

We don't have time to go into the fiery furnace imagery in the parable except to say that it is a metaphor. People are not plants, nor is the fire literal. On the other hand, while metaphors are not literally the truth, they are chosen because they capture something essential about the truth. If the fire is not literal, if it is only a partial picture, a shadow of the reality, then how terrible must be the reality it points to.

So does that mean there is no hope for the weeds of the world? And does this parable mean we must simply put up with evil people until Judgment Day? No. And this is where the metaphor reaches its limits and we must look to Jesus' other teachings. Unlike weeds, people can change. They can make choices. If they repent, change their thinking and the direction of their lives, God will forgive and restore them. Those of the main points of the parable of the prodigal son.

And we need not merely tolerate those who do evil. As Jesus did in his parables, we confront them with the truth. As he did by the seaside, we call for them to abandon their ways and follow Jesus. As he said in the Sermon on the Mount, we love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. As he did everywhere and in everything, we model the royal reign of God that is within us.

The fantasy that we can rid the world of evil by killing all the bad guys persists. It is the plot of most of our action films. It's emotionally appealing. But to paraphrase H.L. Mencken, for every complex problem there is a simple solution...and it's wrong! It's also not as easy to carry out as it appears. If killing your enemies solved your problems, the Middle East would be rapidly approaching becoming the most problem-free place on earth. Violence begets retaliatory violence. Oppression breeds revolution which leads to the new leaders oppressing the old oppressors. Meanwhile, good people get caught in the middle and get hurt. 4000 years of recorded history tells us that. Obviously we must look for another way.

Jesus offers that other way—the way of reconciliation, of transformation, of love. It's really the only viable option left. Yet still we balk. Because Jesus' way requires us to repent, to forgive, to practice self-sacrifice. And because we are too proud, too angry, too self-righteous to turn the other cheek, to make an overture, to consider that we too may have committed some of the wrongs, we continue to fight one another, hoping we will achieve a final and utter victory over our enemies which will never happen. Jesus was right. It's his way or the highway to hell. But we needn't look to the end times for that fiery furnace. We are stoking it right now. We needn't speculate on what hell will be like: we are presiding over hell on earth now. We are fighting everywhere—Crimea, the Middle East, Africa, Asia, South America, Central America, the city streets and schools of North America. We are destroying good will and our planet. We know we must change; will we? We say we are all for for love, that we work for peace and that we follow Jesus; do we? Because Jesus is calling us. Let he who has ears, hear!      

Monday, July 14, 2014

Who's in Control?

When my last little patient started talking, one of his first words was Mama. Unfortunately, he used Mama to refer not only to his mother but to me, his nurse from the time he was 5 months old. At first it was amusing but even when he started using different names for his sister and her friends, who were originally all Mimi to him, he persisted in calling me Mama. Eventually I started to correct him. “I'm not Mama; I'm Chris.” “Mama,” he would reply. “No, Chris,” I would say. “Mama,” he would reassert. “Chris,” I would insist. “Mama!” he would say even more emphatically. It would become a game, our own personal “Who's On First?” comedy routine. But eventually he made the distinction between the different adults who cared for him and started calling me “ 'Ris.” Close enough.

It's a big milestone when kids learn the distinctions between things. Before he disentangled his mother's and my identities, he learned very early that, though both were furry residents of his home, the dogs and the cats were two different kinds of animals. In fact, a lot of children's books start off by teaching them the names of a wide range of animals, some of which they would only encounter at a zoo or in a documentary. I only wish we did as well in teaching them other distinctions in life.

We tend to fall into breaking everything intellectual down into two basic categories: A and non-A. People are either liberal or conservative, religious or progressive, atheist or anti-science. These are largely false dichotomies based on lumping everyone into one or two airtight compartments. But not everyone fits within our neatly drawn lines. Not even biologically.

When I was working on the Psych floor back in the late 1970s we had a teenage girl who was depressed because she felt she was a boy. Nor was this just a whim. She had been born with ambiguous genitalia and, as was common back then, the doctor looked at the newborn, made a decision as to which sex the baby most resembled and surgically made it a girl. But this was before DNA testing. As it turned out, internally, she was much more male than female. When puberty kicked in, and with it her male hormones, she really felt more like a teenage boy than a teenage girl. I don't know what the final outcome was but I felt sorry for her. Society (and her doctor) put her in one category; she identified with another. And while the staff called her an hermaphrodite, the proper medical term of the day, I don't recall anyone thinking she might belong to a third category: what today we call transgendered. She was seen as just a poor mixed up kid.

We have to make distinctions in order to communicate or even to think. You don't want a surgeon asking the nurse during an operation to pass him “the thingy.” Even saying “the pointed thingy” wouldn't help much. Everything has a name and even things falling into the same category are distinguished. There are 40 or more different scalpel blades and about 10 types of handles. A surgeon will specify which she wants passed to her at any given point in the procedure. Of course, a surgical nurse knows each.

But, oddly enough when it comes to ideas, we like to make the categories simple, and binary if possible. And this makes for fuzzy thinking and imprecise communication.

In our passage from Romans 8 Paul is trying to make a subtle distinction. We think we know what he is saying: that there is flesh and there is spirit and they are opposites. But that is a gross oversimplication. Part of the problem is this is a difficult passage to translate and part of this is that Paul is using common words in uncommon ways because he is communicating something new and revolutionary. Perhaps the words he needed weren't invented yet.

To set the context, we need to know that throughout his letter to the church in Rome Paul has been discussing the problems with God's law. For one thing, it can't make people good. Yes, if followed, it can change behavior but it can't change the nature of a person. We all know people who follow rules, not because they like them, but because they have to. It may be they simply want to keep their job or not get arrested or not look bad to others. But these are external reasons and so their observation of any law, even God's, is superficial. And you can see that because they get very good at doing just enough to fulfill the requirements of the rule and not one thing more. They may even violate the spirit of the law in how they do it. The person at a government department may give you the form you need but not help you understand or fill it out. That's not their job. Only a good and empathetic person would go that far when not required to do so.

So laws can't change people, not at the deepest level. I am always surprised when the religious right doesn't seem to understand this. They think that if we put the Ten Commandments in every classroom and every court house and government building, people will see them and be magically transformed into better people. As if a shooter upon entering a school would see the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” and go “D'oh! I keep forgetting that one!” People rarely sin because they don't know something is wrong. They do so despite knowing it's wrong. They will find some justification for what they want to do. Such as in the outrageous video in which a spree killer said he was shooting up his college town because he's a decent guy who can't get girls. Perhaps the women he desired sensed that he was an unstable person who might react violently if he didn't get what he wanted. Whatever his problem was, it wasn't that he didn't know the Ten Commandments.

Secondly Paul says that we couldn't even obey God's law if we wanted to. At least not totally. We all screw up somewhere, no matter how hard we try. For example, though he didn't believe in Christ's divinity and resurrection, Thomas Jefferson considered himself a Christian in that he followed Jesus' teachings. And he was in many ways a very admirable man. But if we look at him closely, we see him falling short of Jesus' teachings in many ways. A vocal opponent of slavery, he owned 600 slaves over the course of his life, both buying and selling them. That's hypocrisy, not one of Jesus' favorite things. The majority of scholars, based on DNA tests, believe Jefferson fathered children by a slave who was the half-sister of his dead wife. Sex outside marriage, incest and just the problem of how consensual is a relationship between slave and master makes this troubling. And this from a man who specifically pared Christianity down to the morals of Jesus.

Why do we fail? As I said, Paul says the problem involves the flesh and the Spirit. Unfortunately for centuries people have erroneously thought they knew what he is saying, namely that our flesh is evil and that spirit is good. This pernicious idea, in the guise of Gnosticism, was rejected by the church as heresy. And yet this false dichotomy has insinuated itself into a lot of attitudes found in the church, like the idea that all bodily appetites need to be suppressed or that God is only interested in our souls and not the rest of us. So before we fall into a simplistic interpretation of these two terms, let's look at what the most misunderstood one-“flesh”-means in different contexts.

Sometimes when Paul uses the word “flesh” (sarx in Greek) he means that literally, such as when he is talking about physical circumcision. But when he writes about things “according to the flesh” he is talking about things seen from a strictly human perspective or mindset. And other times, such as in this passage from Romans 8, when Paul is talking about “flesh” he means human nature, unaided by God, left to its own devices. This distinction is important because a lot of people, including some Christians, think Paul is referring only, or primarily, to sexual sins. But the term is more inclusive.

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul writes, “Now the works of the flesh are obvious: sexual sins, impurity, promiscuity, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, quarrels, jealousies, rages, rivalries, divisions, heresies, envy, drunkenness, carousing and the like...” [Emphasis mine] As you can see, a lot of what he is talking about are non-material sins. Hatreds, quarrels, idolatry and their ilk don't arise from sexual or bodily desires but from human nature when it is divorced from spiritual direction. “Flesh” here means unredeemed human nature.

Paul contrasts “flesh” in this sense with “Spirit.” And by this Paul doesn't mean what people today mean when they talk about “spirituality.” It is not simply any kind of belief system or the contemplation of non-material realitites. By “Spirit” Paul means a person: the Spirit of God who lives in us and who enables us to embody Christ in this life. So Paul is juxtaposing 2 ways of life: being directed by mere human nature or by God's Spirit.

But how can nature be bad? It is very popular to equate what is natural with what is healthy. But that ignores the fact that a lot of what happens in nature is anything but. We see in various animal species cannibalism, infanticide, incest, rape, and even war. I wish I could say all of these are condemned by all human societies but that's not true. Not everything that arises from our nature is good. And the usual solution is to make laws against bad behaviors no matter how natural they are.

And most people will obey those laws. But not all. And as Paul has pointed out laws don't actually make people good. Prohibiting murder doesn't make murderers into model citizens. It just makes them outlaws after they commit the crime. Or else people don't technically break the laws but they game them. We know this is part of human nature because kids very early learn how to not violate the letter of their parent's rules while violating the heck out of the spirit of those rules. Tell your child to stop touching his sister and he will wriggle his fingers within centimeters of her face, technically observing your rule. In fact, human nature is so perverse that sometimes prohibiting an activity makes people more curious about that activity. Tell your kids not to look in the upstairs closet and they'll break in there faster than Bluebeard's wife. All of this is also true of God's law.

So with all the ways people can abuse God's law, what use is it? God's law is good at pointing out what is and is not healthy behavior. No law, as we've shown, can make you obey it. So its function is descriptive, not prescriptive. It's a diagnostic tool. It's important to know that for humans a healthy temperature is 98.6, that a healthy resting pulse runs between 60 and 90, and that a healthy blood pressure shouldn't be higher than 120 over 80. These let you know whether someone has a fever or hypothermia, tachycardia or bradycardia, hypotension or hypertension. But to treat those conditions you need more than a thermometer and a blood pressure cuff. You need to get the heart of the problem.

The law tells us what's wrong with human nature but it cannot by itself cure us. For that we need something else. We need the Holy Spirit, the Spirit who was in Christ. We need to let go of the reins of our life and turn them over to the Spirit. We need to let him transform us from people who are led by our human nature to people who are led by the Spirit.

After all, letting our human nature run our lives hasn't worked out so well. The hatreds, quarrels and divisions Paul described are universal in human societies. We act like rival packs of animals, zealously guarding our territories, suspicious of strangers, prisoners of our fear of others. We let the urgings of our human nature ruin personal lives and break up families. No one is immune: rich or poor, rural or urban, western hemisphere or eastern, northern hemisphere or southern, brown, pink, yellow or red. So maybe it's time to let Jesus take the wheel.

But we fear that. If we let the Spirit take control of our lives, what are we likely to do? Paul described the results of letting the Spirit take over our lives: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, humility and self-control.” It is the antithesis of letting our lower nature rule our lives. Paul says there is no law against these things. There's no law that can compel them either.

You can't pass a law requiring people to be kind or to be humble or to be patient. And any lawyer would tell you that if you did it would be too vague and therefore unenforceable. Yet the world needs more people who are peaceful and patient and kind and faithful and humble. How can we get them? Only by believers consciously being the body of Christ and doing so by embodying his Spirit.

Jesus taught. So should we. Jesus healed. So should we. Jesus fed the hungry. So should we. Jesus forgave the repentant. So should we. Jesus preached good news to the poor. So should we. Jesus spoke the truth to power. So should we. Jesus comforted the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable. So should we. Jesus went beyond the demands of the law. So should we. Jesus stood up to evil regardless of consequences. So should we.

C.S. Lewis said that the purpose of Christianity is to become “little Christs.” He also said that becoming Christlike is more like painting a portrait than like following rules. The important thing about a portrait is that it should be immediately recognizable. It should also capture the spirit of the person. Too often the picture of Jesus which we present to others is rigid, lifeless, rote and predictable. No one will respond to that. We need to capture his Spirit. Or maybe that's the problem: we still want to be in control. So maybe what we need is to do is let him capture us. We need to surrender to God's Spirit and let him decide how to sculpt and shape our lives so that we are recognizable as the body of Christ, bringing his love and grace to the world of people for whom he died, people who can live again, new, more faithful, more hopeful, more loving lives through his Spirit.   

Monday, July 7, 2014

Brains Aren't Enough

Aristotle referred to man as the “rational animal.” Aristotle was overstating things. While it's true that, as far as we know, no other animal creates symbolic logic or does scientific research or debates theology or ethics or politics, we are not nearly as rational as we like to think. Scientists have put people in fMRIs and asked them tough moral questions and seen the emotional centers in the brain respond faster than the rational parts. It seems we usually make decisions based on our “gut” feelings and then use our verbal reasoning to justify what we feel. This is what happens regardless of whether one is liberal or conservative, religious or atheist, educated or not. Which is one reason why, moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt points out, otherwise good people can disagree on what is right and what is wrong. Our positions, especially on things we value the most, are felt first and then we act as lawyers for the stances we have adopted emotionally.

Knowing this makes explicable opinions that seem unfathomable. It also explains why people's most deeply held beliefs are the ones which they have the hardest time articulating. It just feels right. It explains why all the logic in the world can't budge some people's opinions.

The fact that we are not ultimately as rational as we hoped we were would not surprise Paul. He was rational enough to notice that this conflict between truth and emotion did not merely occur between people but within people. And that is what he is talking about in our passage from Romans 7. He is exploring a problem we all wrestle with: why don't we do what is right, especially when we know it is best for us? It's not that we like to do evil; we detest it. And yet we find ourselves being drawn to the same sins over and over again. It's not rational.

This is the primary problem we encounter in life, isn't it? We know our anger gets us into trouble, we know or should know from experience what triggers us and yet we find ourselves ramping up to another destructive outburst. Or we know we are terrible with money, we know we will spend it the minute we get it, and here it is another payday, we have outstanding bills, and yet we hear the siren call of what we really want to spend it all on. Or we know we are untrustworthy around the opposite sex, we know we will shamelessly pursue an attractive person, regardless of whether they or we are married, and yet we find ourselves flirting with someone new despite the fact that we already are in a good relationship and this will ruin it.

We are not dumb. We know what the right thing to do is. We know what the smart thing to do is. We know what the rational thing to do is. And we just can't seem to bring ourselves to do it. It's isn't a matter of ignorance. It is a matter of desire.

When our dog breaks a rule we have labored to teach him, we sigh and say, “Well, he's just a dumb animal.” We can't say the same about ourselves, though. We know better. We have big brains that should be capable of telling us when to say “no.” Or maybe they do and we ignore them, walking into trouble despite the large, clear warning signs life is showing us. How else do we explain the umpteenth CEO caught in a sexual harassment suit? How else do we explain the countless respected politicians caught trying to cover up things that should have been obviously career-ending in the first place? How else do we explain TV evangelists doing the very things they preach against Sunday after Sunday? We ask ourselves, “What we they thinking?” The answer is: they weren't.

Somebody once said that if you wanted to predict what an organization was going to do, you should imagine it is secretly controlled by a cabal of its worst enemies. And you know what? It works. Want to know what a political party's next move is? Imagine it has been infiltrated by members of the opposition who want it to lose the next election. Or imagine that a charity has been taken over by people who want to destroy it by spending the money on things that will make folks look for something else to contribute to. I swear a bunch of Apple employees went undercover at Microsoft to ensure that Windows 8 would be so bad it would drive customers to buy Macs. How long have cars had ignition switches that worked fine and who at GM thought this needed to be tinkered with? Why is it that in the 21st century we have printers that can scan, copy, fax and do everything except reliably pull a piece of paper through itself without jamming? It all makes sense if you simply imagine these companies are controlled by their worst enemies.

Perhaps they are. As the old comic strip Pogo so astutely paraphrased Julius Caesar, “we have met the enemy and he is us.” We are often our own worst enemies. We all know people whose chief talent seems to be snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Heck, I've tried to help a few people like that. I've met people who never get along with anyone and blame each and every one of those people for their problems rather than themselves. And they can't see the improbability that their frequent trouble with others is never their fault.

We have trouble seeing our moral flaws. We are biased to see ourselves as the good guys in our interactions with others. We judge ourselves on our intentions, whereas we judge others on the actual results of their actions, regardless of their intentions. Our intentions however are always pure and noble. "Chelsea needed a reality check and so I was merely being honest, not cruel." "I wasn't careless; Jeff shouldn't have been standing where he was." "We always tell our clients that there's risk involved; they should have paid attention rather than accusing us of deception."

Naturally we need to see and be honest about our faults if we are to have any hope of fixing them. But few people can be that objective about themselves. They keep running into the same self-generated problems and chalk it up to the same run of bad luck or incompetent people they are forever encountering. They themselves are the least likely suspects in this ongoing mystery.

Some folks are able to figure out that they are deeply if not fatally flawed. It happens to those addicts who seek recovery. They have what they call “a moment of clarity.” They see their lives and, more importantly, they see themselves as they really are. All illusions, all delusions, all pretenses are stripped away. The light floods in and they see their true colors. It is literally sobering.

Sins are rather like addictions. They enslave us, bind us to behaviors that may have given us pleasure in the past but now just promise pain. I didn't believe in sex addiction until I heard a man describe how he would turn down invitations to go out with friends in order to stay home and call sex lines, how he'd stay up into the wee hours viewing pornography despite having to go to work the next day, and how he'd risk arrest and STDs cruising for prostitutes. He said that when it's an addiction it no longer fun or enjoyable. It is a compulsion that causes self-loathing.

Which sounds like what Paul is describing. “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want but I do the very thing I hate.” That describes addiction. But Paul at this point is talking about the sin of coveting, which weirdly enough was not a problem until he heard the commandment against it. It had not occurred to him to long for the things that belonged to his neighbor until then. I don't think the impulse was not there; it's that the first whiff of the fragrance of the forbidden fruit awakened his dormant desires. Suddenly he could think of nothing else. It consumed him.

We've all been there. We learn of something we'd never heard of before and the next thing you know we are yearning for it, as if it were a long lost love. Nobody sets out to get hopelessly enslaved to drugs or joyless sex or the never-satisfied pursuit of wealth or the impossible demands of envy or self-righteous anger or self-destructive behavior. Nobody says “I want this one thing to dominate the whole of my life. I want it to leech all of the joy out of everything else in my life. I want this to become the thing to which I will sacrifice all chances of true happiness that come my way.” It starts out small, a one time indulgence. But like a cancer it grows and takes over and eventually it crowds out all else that is healthy in life. Thus what we intended to do “just this once” or “just on weekends” or “just at home” or“just among friends” infiltrates and warps our whole lives.

Paul says, “I can will what is right but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it but sin that dwells within me.” Neuroscientists know that everything we experience, do and think create connections between neurons in our brains. When we do something over and over, we create habits by making connections or pathways to the reward centers in the brain. These pathways bypass the reasoning centers of the brain, like the prefrontal cortex. Which is precisely what Paul and all of us experience when we activate one of these pathways: it is not us, at least not the rational part of us, that is doing this. The bad behavior which we have reinforced is in the driver's seat. The part of us that knows better is at war with the part of us that just wants what it wants.

These changes in our thinking are literally written in our flesh, as Paul puts it; that is, in the physical structures of our brains. When we indulge in bad thoughts, words and works, we reprogram our brains. But unlike a computer we can't just uninstall these programs. They become malware which infects our hard drive and eventually causes all our other programming to glitch.

What we need is new programming. We need to install the Spirit of God to root out the bad programs we have allowed to run. We need to reset our programming. Or as Paul puts it in Romans 12:2, “be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”

Can something non-physical change something physical, like the brain? Of course, it does so all the time. You read or hear words that resonate with your life and various neurons make connections. The words become something you memorize, something you quote, something you live your life by. Or you have an insight or a vision or a revelation that changes your perception of your life or the world. That makes the neural connections, perhaps even a continuing series of connections that changes not just how you think but how you speak and how you act.

We see this in 12 Step programs. The first step is all about realizing and admitting that the person is powerless over whatever it is that has made their life unmanageable. The second step is acknowledging that a power greater than oneself could restore one's sanity. This leads to the third step: making a decision to turn one's will and life over to one's God. Or as one AA member summarizes the first 3 steps: I can't. God can. I'll let him. The words trigger changes in thinking, which in turn trigger changes in actions.

But even the 12 step programs don't rely on words alone. The key is to truly turn one's life over to God. It's like going to a doctor and getting a diagnosis. That's vital but it's only the start. Then you need to get and follow a treatment plan. Which means changing your life. Back in college when I was in a skid row ministry I was shocked by how readily some of the men admitted to being alcoholics. But they never went beyond that. The word was merely an excuse not to do anything about their drinking. It was a cop-out.

For Christians admitting to being sinners is Step One. Then we move to Step Two, acknowledging that God can change us. And Step Three is acting on that. It's asking God to come into our lives, allowing his Spirit to move in and start making changes. Without his power in our lives, all our words are merely sounds.

There is a part of Step 3 I haven't touched on. Bill W., one of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, got a lot of his ideas from the Oxford Group, a Christian movement started by Lutheran minister Dr. Franklin Buchman. But Bill was having problems with the idea of turning to God until a friend suggested he choose his own conception of God. That idea has allowed AA to work in all cultures, all denominations and even with the nonreligious.

But these principles are clearly Christian and for my part, I can't come up with a better concept of God than Jesus Christ. Sure, I can conceive of God in ways that are more in line with my desires: a cosmic soft-hearted grandfather in whose eyes I can do no wrong, who forgives readily and makes no demands on me or my life. But that kind of God would be an enabler, someone who lets me continue to indulge in habits that are destructive to me and others. I need someone who will not let me get away with my B.S. Jesus had no patience with hypocrisy and even when he forgave people, Jesus never said “Go and sin some more.”

I also need a God who understands my life, the stresses and influences and temptations I must deal with daily. Jesus can because he became one of us, from birth to death. When I go to him with the stuff that I face, he knows firsthand what I am talking about. Knowing that Jesus had to deal with work and family and taxes and all the rest of everyday life and that he still stay focused on serving God and doing his will helps me do the same.

I also need a God who is not merely an adviser and guide but who can get hands-on. For some medical problems, drugs, diet and lifestyle changes alone aren't enough. Sometimes you need surgery. I need a God who can get inside me and fix what's broken. I still need to follow his orders but without him making those internal changes first, I would be like someone trying to treat appendicitis through diet and exercise. If I don't let the surgeon remove the inflamed appendix, eventually it will burst and all my diet and exercise will do is make me the most physically fit corpse in the morgue.

The best conception of the God I need to fix my irrational, self-generated problems, to undo the bad habits I have built into my brain, is Jesus. He loves me and forgives me and won't let me continue in my self-destructive ways. He gets me and he can get into me. He will make me into a better person no matter how hard it is for me. Or how much it hurt him. As far as he is concerned, my sins died on that cross with him. Now I have a new life. His life. And I'm going to let him do with it whatever he thinks is best.